By Carlye Wisel
October 13, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: IRR

Woody as an oblong-headed doll. Interior design options for The Incredibles’ mid-century abode. Iterations of the Up house before it filled its balloon-helmed destiny. It’s all on display at “Pixar: The Design of Story,” now open inside the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

The exhibit tees off Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter’s belief that great animated films need to do three things: tell a compelling story, have memorable and appealing characters, and combine both inside of a believable world. Guests to the museum will experience a taste of how Inside Out’s heartfelt narrative, the plausibility of Wall-E’s dystopian world, and the Herculean task of making vermin “charming” in Ratatouille evolved from early concepts to fully realized artwork within classic blockbuster films. The museum’s Process Lab also holds an alcove highlighting the creation of Luxo Jr., Pixar’s groundbreaking short that changed the perspective of computer animation at its time.

One highlight of the exhibit is a video detailing the creation of Merida’s blazing red mane in Brave, a complex, multi-step process that ensured the curls, texture and tangles were just right.

Visitors will also be let in on one of Pixar’s most intriguing concepts: simplexity, or the “art of simplifying an image down to its essence,” as explained by production designer Ricky Nierva. Regardless of their final form, at their core, the characters cast in films like Inside Out, Monsters University and Up can all be broken down to simple forms and familiar shapes, such as squares (Inside Out’s Anger), teardrops (Up’s Dug) and circles (Monsters’ Mike Wazowski).

With quotes from Pixar’s top designers, and even the film canisters filled with dirt that served as the genesis to Cars’ landscape, visitors will be given a glimpse behind the curtain at the artistry and innovation necessary to make these anthropomorphised characters so beloved—but only that. The Cooper Hewitt’s exhibit is not the jaunt through Pixar’s fabled and famed offices that guests may come to expect, as there is not much that is physically on display.

The bulk of the exhibit appears on digital tables featuring an interactive stream of hundreds of sculptures, sketches and diagrams from Pixar’s archives. Visitors are invited to browse through this “object river” and explore the vast worlds and intricate details that go into creating the worlds inside their various films, and the opportunity to create, both digitally and on paper, forms of characters themselves.

The items on display are undeniably intriguing—one instance led to discovering an early mockup of Boo from Monsters, Inc. as a redhead with pigtails, and much of the imagery allows for close-up viewing to see artists’ actual markings and notes. For the Pixar-phile, it’s a deep dive into the archives of beloved films and artwork that can’t be seen elsewhere, yet for the casual fan, it can feel like a fancified slideshow.

With so much to see but so little to tangibly hold, it may be difficult to feel that much closer to Pixar’s process when sliding between fully-realized concept artworks of Inside Out’s Bing Bong. Yet, in a world of characters that feel so real and yet somehow are not, it serves as wake-up call to how incredibly difficult the process of mining and perfecting these beloved, iconic figures can be—and that it is truly worth taking the time to explore.

Pixar: The Design Of Story is open now through August 7, 2016. For hours, details and more information about visiting Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, please visit the museum's website.